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The Catacombs of Paris  

The article by Colin Sage as promised in the last B.B.  (The editor does occasional manage to find articles!)

Whilst I was in Paris in August, I decided to visit the catacombs. These are reached by taking the metro to Place Denfert Rochereau and walking around the corner from the metro station.  The catacombs are available for inspection every Saturday at 2 p.m. throughout the summer and every other Saturday during the rest of the year.

After paying two francs admission, one has the chance of purchasing a candle for 60 centimes - and if you don't have a torch, buy one, there are no lights at all in the catacombs!

The catacombs are reached by descending a spiral staircase consisting of 91 steps and going down sixty feet.  This leads to a brick corridor underneath the South side of the Denfert Rocherou square. This corridor, and also those that follow on from it all lead to the ossuary.  The good condition of the roofing of these passages is necessary for the support of the buildings, public roads and subterranean works (especially the metro!)  By way of these passages, visitors find themselves under the Avenue Rene Coty, which is then followed in a Southerly direction the walls of the passages involved hold up the ancient aqueduct of Arcueil.

Further on, one descends by a slightly sloping tunnel into an area called 'l'etage inferieur'.  One then notices an impressive reproduction sculptured in the rock, of the fortress of Port Mahon - the principal town in Minorca.  This work was carried out by an old veteran in the army of Louis XV during his periods of leave.

A little later on, we pass by the side of a well, cut into the rock, the water of which is extremely limpid.  It is called 'Bain de Pied des Carriers'.

A reasonably steep slope leads back to 'l'etage superieur' and we arrive at the door of the ossuary. At the entrance one can read these lines from DeLille engraved in the rock; ‘Stop. Here is the empire of the dead’.

Once the doorway has been passed, we go down a lot of passages bordered on either side by millions of bones carefully stacked, all coming from the ancient disused cemeteries of Paris. There are regular horizontal lines of skulls, interrupted by those displayed in the shapes of the cross and other decorative motifs of a macabre quality.  The origin of the bones is pinpointed by plaques.  After wandering through different crypts, one comes across a sarcophagus, a stone altar, a spring called simply 'the fountain, of the Samaritan' and various inscriptions pondering philosophically over death and the fragility of human existence.

The ossuary collects together the bones of 5 or 6 million people.

On leaving the ossuary, an inspection passage is passed through, and one sees two immense domes which are natural and about thirty five feet high.  They are empty, but allow one to think of the danger represented by such features to overlying buildings and roads.  The exit staircase which leads to daylight on 36 Rue Remy-Dumoncel has 83 steps and is about fifty five feet in depth.

The origin of the catacombs in Paris does not go back, as do those of Rome, to the early Christian era., but only; to the end of the eighteenth century.  For nearly ten centuries there existed in the first section of Paris, a cemetery called 'Des Innocents' at a square which bore the same name.  This cemetery, which received the remains of many generations from some 20 parishes in the area, became one of the largest centres of infection and threatened public health.  Between 1725 and 1755, the inhabitants of the neighbouring areas brought violent complaints which, for a long time, were fruitless.  Finally, in 1780, most of the inhabitants - terrified by the accidents which occurred in the cellars of the Rue de la Lingerie, set up a committee towards the end of 1779, which became over 2,000 strong and petitioned the Lieutenant General Police by demonstrating the dangers to public healthy and safety represented by this 'centre of corruption', in which the number of bodies disposed had caused the ground level to become eight feet above the level of surrounding ground and roads.

The evacuation of the cemetery was finally decided upon in 1785, and to dispose of the bones, the ancient subterranean stone passages called 'La Tombe Issoire' were chosen. After having made these underground areas fit to receive the mortal remains and carried out the preliminary works, the catacombs of the Tombe Issoire were consecrated on the 7th of April 1786 and proclaimed the general ossuary of the cemeteries of Paris.  That same day, the transfer of bones was begun from the Cemetery des Innocents to the catacombs.

After the destruction of the church of Les Innocents, all the tombs, inscriptions and crosses which were not claimed by the families involved were also transferred to the Tombe Issoire.

The success of the operations prompted the administration to extend them to other cemeteries in Paris and, from 1787 to 1814, a number of Parisian cemeteries were closed and the bones sent to the ossuary, there to be arranged systematically according to their cemetery.

Many burials of victims of the revolution (1788 to 1792) were also made in the ossuary.  Since then, all human remains found in Parisian soil have been placed in the catacombs.